There aren’t many things in life more important than taking care of your own. Whether it be in your personal life, in business, or your social life, it’s essential for success and happiness. There is no time this becomes more important than when we are talking about health and safety. Unfortunately, life can deal us all situations we are powerless to control, prevent, or remedy. Today we will be talking about something we can make a difference about, and the extraordinary efforts of some to make great strides and protect their own. “And if it’s their own, it’s high time in my opinion we realize they are our own too.”
As an animal lover, I have been involved in rescue, including horses. Anyone who has worked, or volunteered in rescue, as most of us do, realizes you can never do enough or save enough. There are just too many in need, but it doesn’t stop or sway us. We can’t let it. They depend on us and this is true in our industry as much as anywhere. Horses are not the only ones in our game that need our support; however, riders do as well. Jockeys and exercise riders both. They are our own and the racing community is a big extended family from where I sit. We may not always agree, and that’s what makes a horse race, but we are all indeed extended family. “The racetrack is indeed it’s own world and race trackers of all kinds are a special breed. There are times we must be united and this is surely one of them.”
Recently JJ and Samm Graci, both long time race trackers, and the hosts of the popular horse racing radio show, It’s Post Time, broadcasted live at a fundraiser for The Permanently Disabled Jockey’s Fund at Frank and Dino’s restaurant, in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Frank and Dino’s, owned by Carlo Vaccarezza, an owner, trainer, and breeder, frequently hosts such events. I don’t think anyone expected what was to occur at this one, and it’s gone pretty much unnoticed, or at least has not received the attention it is due. JJ and Samm conducted interviews with Eric Cancel, Abigail Fuller, Ramon Dominquez, Jose Santos, and legendary Angel Cordero Jr. The show is archived on It’s Post Times’Facebook page and I encourage all to listen to it. I’ll include the Eric Cancel portion of the show via link, as that is the segment that prompted me to want to do more and get involved. It’s worth listening to,and has to be one of the most revealing, open and honest interviews you’ll hear. Growing up around NYRA, specifically Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, I became a fan and student of The Sport of Kings at a very early age. My dad, brother, and even I worked for NYRA at times, and they will always be extended family. While I followed sports and played them as many kids do, my earliest heroes were horses and jockeys. So yes, this hits home for me and I would hope for all of the race tracker extended family.
While being interviewed by JJ and Samm Graci, and with Abigail Fuller still on the air, Eric Cancel shared a frightening story. You would think in our day and age, it was something that shouldn’t and couldn’t happen. According to Eric, it did, and it may not have been the only time. Eric said he rode a horse for Leo O’Brien in the last race on a New York card. The horse reared in the gate and Eric hit his head. The horse was looked at by the track veterinarian and found to be fit to race. Eric was asked if he was alright to ride by the EMT’s in the ambulance that follows riders around the track, and he apparently indicated he was. According to Eric, he was given no test, no protocol was followed, no Doctor was consulted, and the race went off. Eric’s mount trailed throughout and finished last. Eric told JJ and Samm he had no recollection of the race. He did not know what happened during the running of it, and did not remember anything until after he showered and both Jose Ortiz, and Irad Ortiz Jr., came over to him and suggested he apologize to trainer Leo O’Brien. Eric had no idea why and the Ortiz brothers told him he was yelling at Mr. O’Brien after the race. It was at that point Eric realized he had a concussion and rode that way. He also stated it was not the first time it happened. Eric Cancel is a bright young rider. His future in our game is as promising as anyone’s. My first thought was this is not something that should be allowed to happen ever. It got me to thinking about all the recent things we learned about concussions from mainstream sports leagues like The NFL, and NHL. Further, it got me to thinking how prone and vulnerable riders both in the morning and afternoon are to this dangerous injury, with serious residual effects that still may not be fully understood.
How can this happen I thought? How often does it happen was my next thought, which of course led to what can we do to help? The other thing I could not escape thinking is how many disasters were averted by sheer luck. I was beyond pleased to learn “luck” is not the only factor that’s helped avoid disasters, but we’ll get to that later. I discussed what I heard with JJ and Samm Graci, they shared both my amazement that this can happen, and my concern for our own, the riders and horses.
I then went from one extreme of the jockey spectra to the other. I had a conversation with jockey Anthony Black. Anthony Black, or Tony Black as he’s better known in the racing world was born in 1951. He won his first race at Liberty Bell racetrack in 1970 and hasn’t stopped winning since. He’s won over 5200 races and ridden in many more. He’s won at all levels, and with that kind of experience there is not much he has not seen and experienced in The Sport of Kings. Tony Black has no idea how many concussions he’s had over the years. He is confident he’s had many. He cites the numerous spills, and times he’s hit his head hard on the dirt, turf, and gate. Let alone being run over by horses, all part of the job. He says “the residual damage from my concussions is so obvious my wife and I have a running joke about it,” even though he’ll be the first to tell you it’s no laughing matter. He’s become forgetful, frequently forgetful actually, and when he returns from the store, he’s usually forgotten something. His wife and he will joke, it’s all those concussions. With all we’ve learned medically about head injuries and concussions in general in the past few years, it’s likely they are right. Tony says for years clearance to ride following a spill, and likely many concussions, came from the clerk of scales. “After a fall, the clerk of scales would ask if you were “OK” to ride.” You said yes if at all possible as most jockeys don’t want to give up a mount. Their livelihood depends on getting mounts, winning, and keeping those mounts. Taking off of one, or not riding it, is a pretty surefire way to lose the mount. Accordingly, jockeys are under enormous pressure, inherent to the game, to ride if they are at all able, and that includes injured and in pain.
With little fanfare or attention, almost as if it was “OK”, the jockey concussion issue came up on national television. During a segment on Dancing with the Stars, jockey Victor Espinoza told his dancing instructor, she’ll have to go over some of the moves multiple times with him, as his short term memory is bad from all the concussions he’s sustained as a rider.
Jockeys and exercise riders are pound for pound among the strongest, toughest and most competitive athletes in the world. Despite the competitive adrenaline fueled blood that flows through their veins, like most athletes, they don’t want to put themselves or any of their peers in harm’s way. They are just in a precarious position when faced with losing business they work and fight so hard for. They also know how it can all end in a flash. No rider, experienced, or inexperienced should be faced with making the decision of am I “OK” to ride after suffering a head injury that could affect their judgement. There has to be a protocol in place to prevent this. This led to my next stop, Mike Smith. In addition to being one of the best riders ever, Mike makes no secret about his love of the game, and both the equine and human participants. I felt Mike, who is also on The Board of the Jockeys’ Guild, would be a good place to start to see where things were, where they were heading, and what if anything I could do to help. To both my pleasure and surprise Mike enlightened me about a lot of things that were being done and addressed, and suggested for more information I go to Terry Meyocks, the Guild’s National Manager. The Guild is fortunate to have Mr. Meyocks as their National Manager. On top of a deep passion and love for The Sport of Kings, a powerful resume as a successful and innovative racing executive, a love and respect for our human and equine athletes, he has skin in the game. Mr. Meyocks is the father- in- law of Javier Castellano, year after year one of the top jockeys in the country. Mr. Meyocks’ son in law, his own immediate and extended racetrack family, faces these issues on a daily basis.
Before we get into some of the progress The Guild is making, and some of the directions they are going, and how much more needs to be done, let us for a moment pretend we need a stark reminder of just how tough it is for riders. While we all celebrated Kentucky Derby day and weekend, we watched both Jose Lezcano and Paco Lopez go down. Both were fortunate enough to get up and are going to be alright. It happens in a flash, we never know when it will, and neither do they, yet they show up every morning. Less fortunate was jockey Diego R. Sanchez who went down the Friday night before Derby Day at Emerald Downs. Diego underwent eight hours of surgery and last reports were he was still fighting to regain feeling from the chest down, which he lost following the spill. His mount, Agate Beach who had clipped heels, fell, and rolled over Diego, was not injured. Diego is facing possible paralysis. Our prayers go to him and his family and all fallen riders.
To further put the life of a jockey in perspective, I thought it appropriate to share this excerpt from a tribute and article I wrote about the tragic and untimely death of young Juan Saez. Here is a link to the article if you don’t know this horrific and sad story, but the excerpt has become sort of a Past the Wire tribute to riders. Juan Saez tribute article link:
“Suppose there was a job for you. A job dangerous enough that an ambulance would follow you around at work. Dangerous enough that you will have a hard time getting health insurance. Life insurance? Well most agents will laugh at you. You’d have to work pretty much seven days a week, including holidays. There is no paid vacation, no vacation at all actually. You’ll have no sick days either. You won’t have a contract, or any guarantee. If you do get sick, or worse hurt, you may lose all the business you have worked for and built up. Accordingly, you can expect to work sick and even hurt. You won’t know how much money you will make either, it can be a lot, if you are consistently among the best at what you do. If you slack however, or have a lot of off days you won’t make much money at all; however, the danger and all those other perks will remain constant. You’ll have to pretty much give up normal meals. Your weight will be monitored to the pound closer than a Cirque De Solei dancer. Words like flipping, purging, and puking will be part of your regular vocabulary. You’ll learn to like if not love sweating, even profusely. Although you will have to watch every morsel of food, you will also have to stay very fit and in top shape always. Your days will start before the sun rises and finish as it sets but you will still need to find time to work out. After all, you will be expected to control, with precision, animals racing in close quarters at high speeds, that weigh 1100 or 1200 pounds more than you do. Yes, some of them can be wild and unpredictable.
You will always have to watch your liver and kidneys. Besides being banged around constantly, your diet and lifestyle are not very conducive to their staying healthy. You’ll have to be resourceful too, like thinking of things like driving to and from work in a sweat suit with the heat blasting. You have to keep those pounds off. Napping whenever you have 15 minutes will sound like a great idea with your grinding schedule and there is no off season. If you are not used to almost constant criticism, it would be a good idea to become very familiar with it. You will be second guessed all the time for split second decisions you make almost instinctively. People who have never dieted, let alone sat on a racehorse, will call you names and blame you for their losing bets. Trainers will be your best friends when you win but some won’t even let you bring donuts by the barn when you lose.
Despite all this, you will have one of the most rewarding careers in the world. You will regularly be at one with the graceful, magnificent and majestic thoroughbred racehorse. You’ll be cheered, revered, and respected by your peers and those who know and understand the Sport of Kings. Those same people who jeered you when you lost will applaud you and marvel at your skill when you win. You will be a fierce competitor and part of a fraternity and family that you will never leave. You, at all of a hundred and ten pounds, will be pound for pound one of the strongest athletes in the world. You’ll be part of history and greatness. You’ll strive to participate in the greatest two minutes in sports, The Kentucky Derby, and who knows, you may even win it. It doesn’t sound so bad all of a sudden.”
Frankly, resume and accomplishments aside, after speaking with Mr. Meyocks, I realized The Guild could not have a better leader. He has the pulse of all the issues faced not just by jockeys, but exercise riders as well. His passion and determination to make a difference are immediately evident, as is his knowledge. I was pleased to learn The Guild is working tirelessly on not just the concussion issue, but all safety issues. Additionally, they are striving to reduce the risks of liability and costs of insurance, including workers compensation insurance for the tracks, owners, and horsemen. They are actively working with many organizations, but especially with The Jockey Club, Keeneland, and The University of Kentucky. Their task is not small, nor will this be a short term fix, but it’s comforting to know the man at the helm knows the issues, and is working towards solutions. It’s vital the entire industry, bettors included, are behind them. It all comes back to taking care of our own which bring me to my next point.
In an interview on the At The Races radio show with Steve Byk a while ago, trainer Rick Violette was talking about issues with drugs and violations in racing. Testing procedures and the cost of same came up. Rick suggested, and I have little doubt his intentions were good, and he was simply searching for a solution, suggested bettors should pay or contribute towards testing and better policing of the game. The bettor in me took offense at that. If you can’t test properly, and uniformly, don’t tax me on top of take-out to do what you should be doing to gain my wagering dollars. Bad idea in my book, and that thinking is contributory to what some tracks do to alienate players. We are not the only game in town anymore, and we need to remain cognizant of that as an industry, and take care of our own and our business. Taxing bettors or increasing take out to better police the game is not the answer. I bring this up because on the other hand, “if you told me take out was going up, or a wagering cost was increasing, and that additional cost was going to help injured riders, safety precautions, research, The Guild, The Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund, or injured or retired horses, I’d be happy to pay it.” I’d like to think most players and lovers of The Sport of Kings, the greatest skill wagering game in the world are with me. Perhaps if they see more of what The Guild is doing and working on they will be.
Going back as far as 2010, Mr. Meyocks and The Guild were already on the helmet safety issue, which ties directly to the concussion issue. He was working with, and talking to David A. Hovda, PhD, Lind Lawrence Eminent Scholar, Professor, Department of Neurosurgery and Molecular and Medical Pharmacology. Dr. Hovda pointed out Wayne State University, and The University of Pennsylvania had excellent biomechanical departments that had studied protective headgear in other professional sports, and opened the door for introductions of those studies to The Guild. He also offered to participate in any symposium on traumatic brain injuries. The Guild is and has been going down the right roads, and has support, I just think the support and cooperation, needs to be across the board at every track and level of the game. The industry as a whole has to join in and support the efforts, and fans and bettors alike must join in, and at the very least follow The Guild’s newsletters and progress. There is more, a lot more.
The following is from The Jockeys’ Guild 2016 Assembly held in February in South Florida. Welfare and safety of jockeys and exercise riders remain paramount, and progress is being made. More importantly, the critical issues, are at the forefront:
“The staff of the Jockeys’ Guild continuously works for the safety of all riders including exercise riders, and to gain the necessary respect that jockeys deserve. The safety issues include understanding the quality of our helmets and safety vests, mandatory paramedics at every track every day for training and racing, and ensuring tracks must have adequate on track accident coverage of at least $1 million if not a workers’ comp state,” Terry Meyocks, National Manager. Mr. Meyocks went on, “We continue to work with the tracks, regulators and horsemen regarding safety rails and reins, race day medication, pre-race exams, regulation of the use of shock wave therapy and much more.”
In his opening remarks Mr. Meyocks discussed that although progress is being made, some of the same issues which necessitated the forming of the Guild in the 1940’s are faced by jockeys today. While discouraging, progress and efforts can’t be overlooked. It should serve as more motivation. It was brought up by Paul Struthers, Executive Director of the Professional Jockeys’ Association in the United Kingdom, that the British Racing Authority has jurisdiction over all licensees which makes things getting done, and uniformity, much easier in comparison with the United States, which has no national governing body. Sound familiar? I have been writing for two years, as recently as last week, racing needs a “CENTRAL GOVERNING BODY, WITH A COMMISSIONER, ONE SET OF UNIFORMED RULES, AND A BOARD MADE UP OF MEMBERS FROM ALL ASPECTS OF THE SPORT. ” The multi-state jurisdiction rebuttal doesn’t cut it. Most sports operate in various states, some in different countries, and a central governing body is no problem for them. Obviously with cooperation and ingenuity, this can be accomplished. Also discussed by Dr. Carl Mattacola of the University of Kentucky, who has been working with The Guild the past several years, was a Concussion Model for Horse Racing. A desperately needed protocol to afford our riders the greatest chance of protection from this inherent issue. Dr. Mattacola noted that horse racing has not yet really prioritized this, like in other major sports, and this is evident by the Eric Cancel incident that should have been avoided.
It is evident we are moving in the right direction, and we have a voluminous number of issues with which to deal. Yet again, I keep coming back to the progress, and the way The Guild is identifying the critical issues and going after them first while balancing daily operations.
We all know one of the greats of our sport, Ramon Dominquez, retired early, perhaps still in his prime, following a head injury. His doctor, Kenneth Perrine, prepared the attached report identifying and differentiating traumatic brain injury and concussions. It’s essential reading to see what we are dealing with and what our riders face every morning and afternoon during workouts and racing. It’s a scary report and reveals facts we all should know, especially riders. One concussion, if not completely healed, increases the chance of a second with a less severe impact. There is no magic number set in stone as to how many concussions will result in permanent irreversible damage. As competitive as our riders are, they must be educated that no mount is worth that risk. Concussion symptoms can’t and shouldn’t be hidden and all tracks must join together and establish uniformity and guidelines in dealing with them. Every racetrack has an inherent duty to help our game catch up with other sports with protocols and protection of our participants. In the absence of a central governing body, the only expedient common sense approach, and to go one further, the only moral course is to support The Guild and follow their lead. Anything less from any track is just not acceptable. Link to Dr. Perrine presentation:
At The Guild’s 2015 assembly, concussions were also addressed, and protocols and mitigating factors offered. Mark Lovell, PhD., ABN, FACPN, Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer ImPACT Applications Inc. prepared the attached report “Concussion in Horse Racing.” Dr. Lovell has 25 years as a concussion expert working with athletes from various sports. While complicated in nature, the common denominators of concussions in sports, including horse racing, are; they are inherent, they are serious, they can’t be prevented entirely but can be mitigated in both occurrence and damage, and protocols are needed and have to be followed. Helmet safety was also addressed by Bryan Shaffer, Technical Operations Specialist with Chesapeake Testing. Mike Ziegler, currently Executive Director of Racing at Churchill Downs and Executive Director-Safety and Integrity Alliance for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), spoke about the plan and implementation of a “Jockey Injury Database.” This would give paramedics or attending physicians immediate access to a jockey’s prior injuries including concussions. Link to Dr Lovell’s presentation:
Most interesting is along with progress comes additional questions, and the need for more research. The latest helmets, while designed for catastrophic injuries, are resulting in more head injuries. Jose Espinoza and Ramon Dominquez would be examples, both wearing the latest and what we’d expect to be the safest helmets, had their careers cut short by head injuries. It’s happening in other sports also. In some cases, we are seeing no damage to the helmet. The testing and evaluation of this issue is costly and The Guild with limited resources is at the forefront of it, at least in our industry. One way to raise money under serious consideration, and likely something that will come to pass, is a 501 (c)(3) with a specific mission statement designed to gain the necessary funding for the testing and ultimately development of helmets that do the job we need them to do, consistently. Vests fall into this category as well.
Here is a picture of Edgar Prado’s helmet following his fall at Gulfstream. While he suffered facial lacerations, he did not suffer a concussion. This helmet served its purpose.
As we all know, concussions and head injuries are not the only perils riders face daily. For years, and even still today, spinal cord injuries remain a primary concern of riders and their loved ones. It’s probably scarier than the current concussion focus as the damage is so much more evident, and usually immediately so. This is nothing new to the game, riders, or The Guild. What is relatively new, (only a few years) and again largely unknown in the industry, unless you have been personally affected, is the work The Guild is doing with The Miami Project to cure paralysis. They’ve worked with Michael Straight, Rene Douglas, Gary Donahue, and Robin Cleary. The Guild working with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis:
With so much done and so much more to do, we need all the resources and awareness we can gather. Along those lines we encourage the support and following of the website, www.jockeytalk360.com which was started by Corey Johnsen. Corey is doing his part to bring awareness to riders, their plights and the progress being made and that needs to be made.
While it’s discouraging we are behind other countries on some of these issues, what’s encouraging and more important is that it may not stay that way long. With The Guild under Terry Meyocks, working on safety, insurance, and cost issues, and circumventing our lack of a central governing body when possible, we may wind up where we need to be and belong, at the forefront of these concerns and spearheading solutions in the future. While the Eric Cancel story is extremely disturbing, as is Tony Black’s and Victor Espinoza’s, the industry and specifically The Guild is not sitting idle. Can we ever move fast enough on safety and health issues?, the answer is no, but just like rescue work, we don’t stop or let up for a second because of what we can’t do, and can’t do fast enough, we forge forward because of what we can do. “If we work together and all racetracks and race trackers, including bettors, come together, we can accomplish great things, improve the safety of our game, and all faster than one might think.” We have no excuse for the Cancel incident happening, nor being behind the UK and others in our research and protocols, but we have the ability to change that. If you truly love The Sport of Kings, and truly appreciate the riders and horses putting their lives on the line, every single day, then you have to want to get involved and help. It starts with awareness. While shocked at Cancel’s story, I was equally surprised at The Guild’s awareness and progress under less than ideal circumstances.
Going forward Past the Wire is going to be doing their part to keep awareness up, and to find innovative ways to help. We can’t afford to back burner any of these issues. We have to take care of our own and do what’s necessary, as long as necessary.